I have watched your progress with pride, but it will never be possible for us to be …’
He curled his fingers, as if trying to pluck the right words out of the air. Close. Normal. A true father and son. ‘From birth, you were destined to be Hera’s – to appease her wrath. Even your name, Jason, was her choice. You did not ask for this. I did not want it. But when I gave you over to her … I had no idea what a good man you would become. Your journey has shaped you, made you both kind and great. Whatever happens when we return to the Parthenon, know that I do not hold you accountable. You have proven yourself a true hero.’
Jason’s emotions were a jumble in his chest. ‘What do you mean … whatever happens?’
‘The worst is not over,’ Zeus warned. ‘And someone must take the blame for what has happened. Come.’
NOTHING WAS LEFT OF THE GIANTS except heaps of ash, a few spears and some burning dreadlocks.
The Argo II was still aloft, barely, moored to the top of the Parthenon. Half the ship’s oars were broken off or tangled. Smoke streamed from several large splits in the hull. The sails were peppered with burning holes.
Leo looked almost as bad. He stood in the midst of the temple with the other crewmembers, his face covered in soot, his clothes smouldering.
The gods fanned out in a semicircle as Zeus approached. None of them seemed particularly joyful about their victory.
Apollo and Artemis stood together in the shadow of a column, as if trying to hide. Hera and Poseidon were having an intense discussion with another goddess in green and gold robes – perhaps Demeter. Nike tried to put a golden laurel wreath on Hecate’s head, but the goddess of magic swatted it away. Hermes sneaked close to Athena, attempting to put his arm around her. Athena turned her aegis shield his way and Hermes scuffled off.
The only Olympian who seemed in a good mood was Ares. He laughed and pantomimed gutting an enemy while Frank listened, his expression polite but queasy.
‘Brethren,’ Zeus said, ‘we are healed, thanks to the work of these demigods. The Athena Parthenos, which once stood in this temple, now stands at Camp Half-Blood. It has united our offspring, and thus our own essences.’
‘Lord Zeus,’ Piper spoke up, ‘is Reyna okay? Nico and Coach Hedge?’
Jason couldn’t quite believe Piper was asking after Reyna’s health, but it made him glad.
Zeus knitted his cloud-coloured eyebrows. ‘They succeeded in their mission. As of this moment they are alive. Whether or not they are okay –’
‘There is still work to be done,’ Queen Hera interrupted. She spread her arms like she wanted a group hug. ‘But my heroes … you have triumphed over the giants as I knew you would. My plan succeeded beautifully.’
Zeus turned on his wife. Thunder shook the Acropolis. ‘Hera, do not dare take credit! You have caused at least as many problems as you’ve fixed!’
The queen of heaven blanched. ‘Husband, surely you see now – this was the only way.’
‘There is never only one way!’ Zeus bellowed. ‘That is why there are three Fates, not one. Is this not so?’
By the ruins of the giant king’s throne, the three old ladies silently bowed their heads in recognition. Jason noticed that the other gods stayed well away from the Fates and their gleaming brass clubs.
‘Please, husband.’ Hera tried for a smile, but she was so clearly frightened that Jason almost felt sorry for her. ‘I only did what I –’
‘Silence!’ Zeus snapped. ‘You disobeyed my orders. Nevertheless … I recognize that you acted with honest intentions. The valour of these seven heroes has proven that you were not entirely without wisdom.’
Hera looked like she wanted to argue, but she kept her mouth shut.
‘Apollo, however …’ Zeus glared into the shadows where the twins were standing. ‘My son, come here.’
Apollo inched forward like he was walking the plank. He looked so much like a teenage demigod it was unnerving – no more than seventeen, wearing jeans and a Camp Half-Blood T-shirt, with a bow over his shoulder and a sword at his belt. With his tousled blond hair and blue eyes, he might’ve been Jason’s brother on the mortal side as well as the godly side.
Jason wondered if Apollo had assumed this form to be inconspicuous, or to look pitiable to his father. The fear in Apollo’s face certainly looked real, and also very human.
The Three Fates gathered around the god, circling him, their withered hands raised.
‘Twice you have defied me,’ Zeus said.
Apollo moistened his lips. ‘My – my lord –’
‘You neglected your duties. You succumbed to flattery and vanity. You encouraged your descendant Octavian to follow his dangerous path, and you prematurely revealed a prophecy that may yet destroy us all.’
‘Enough!’ Zeus boomed. ‘We will speak of your punishment later. For now, you will wait on Olympus.’
Zeus flicked his hand, and Apollo turned into a cloud of glitter. The Fates swirled around him, dissolving into air, and the glittery whirlwind shot into the sky.
‘What will happen to him?’ Jason asked.
The gods stared at him, but Jason didn’t care. Having actually met Zeus, he had a newfound sympathy for Apollo.
‘It is not your concern,’ Zeus said. ‘We have other problems to address.’
An uncomfortable silence settled over the Parthenon.
It didn’t feel right to let the matter go. Jason didn’t see how Apollo deserved to be singled out for punishment.
Someone must take the blame, Zeus had said.
‘Father,’ Jason said, ‘I made a vow to honour all the gods. I promised Kymopoleia that once this war is over none of the gods would be without shrines at the camps.’
Zeus scowled. ‘That’s fine. But … Kym who?’
Poseidon coughed into his fist. ‘She’s one of mine.’
‘My point,’ Jason said, ‘is that blaming each other isn’t going solve anything. That’s how the Romans and Greeks got divided in the first place.’
The air became dangerously ionized. Jason’s scalp tingled.
He realized he was risking his father’s wrath. He might get turned into glitter or blasted off the Acropolis. He’d known his dad for five minutes and made a good impression. Now he was throwing it away.
A good Roman wouldn’t keep talking.
Jason kept talking. ‘Apollo wasn’t the problem. To punish him for Gaia waking is –’ he wanted to say stupid, but he caught himself – ‘unwise.’
‘Unwise.’ Zeus’s voice was almost a whisper. ‘Before the assembled gods, you would call me unwise.’
Jason’s friends watched on full alert. Percy looked like he was ready to jump in and fight at his side.
Then Artemis stepped out of the shadows. ‘Father, this hero has fought long and hard for our cause. His nerves are frayed. We should take that into account.’
Jason started to protest, but Artemis stopped him with a glance. Her expression sent a message so clear she might have been speaking in his mind: Thank you, demigod. But do not press this. I will reason with Zeus when he is calmer.
‘Surely, Father,’ the goddess continued, ‘we should attend to our more pressing problems, as you pointed out.’
‘Gaia,’ Annabeth chimed in, clearly anxious to change the topic. ‘She’s awake, isn’t she?’
Zeus turned towards her. Around Jason, the air molecules stopped humming. His skull felt like it had just come out of the microwave.
‘That is correct,’ Zeus said. ‘The blood of Olympus was spilled. She is fully conscious.’
‘Oh, come on!’ Percy complained. ‘I get a little nosebleed and I wake up the entire earth? That’s not fair!’
Athena shouldered her aegis. ‘Complaining of unfairness is like assigning blame, Percy Jackson. It does no one any good.’ She gave Jason an approving glance. ‘Now you must move quickly. Gaia rises to destroy your camp.’
Poseidon leaned on his trident. ‘For once, Athena is right.’
‘For once?’ Athena protested.
‘Why would Gaia be back at camp?’ Leo asked. ‘Percy’s nosebleed was here.’
‘Dude,’ Percy said, ‘first off, you heard Athena – don’t blame my nose. Second, Gaia’s the earth. She can pop up anywhere she wants. Besides, she told us she was going to do this. She said the first thing on her to-do list was destroying our camp. Question is: how do we stop her?’
Frank looked at Zeus. ‘Um, sir, Your Majesty, can’t you gods just pop over there with us? You’ve got the chariots and the magic powers and whatnot.’
‘Yes!’ Hazel said. ‘We defeated the giants together in two seconds. Let’s all go –’
‘No,’ Zeus said flatly.
‘No?’ Jason asked. ‘But, Father –’
Zeus’s eyes sparked with power, and Jason realized he’d pushed his dad as far as he could for today … and maybe for the next few centuries.
‘That’s the problem with prophecies,’ Zeus growled. ‘When Apollo allowed the Prophecy of Seven to be spoken, and when Hera took it upon herself to interpret the words, the Fates wove the future in such a way that it had only so many possible outcomes, so many solutions. You seven, the demigods, are destined to defeat Gaia. We, the gods, cannot.’
‘I don’t get it,’ Piper said. ‘What’s the point of being gods if you have to rely on puny mortals to do your bidding?’
All the gods exchanged dark looks. Aphrodite, however, laughed gently and kissed her daughter. ‘My dear Piper, don’t you think we’ve been asking ourselves that question for thousands of years? But it is what binds us together, keeps us eternal. We need you mortals as much as you need us. Annoying as that may be, it’s the truth.’
Frank shuffled uncomfortably, like he missed being an elephant. ‘So how can we possibly get to Camp Half-Blood in time to save it? It took us months to reach Greece.’
‘The winds,’ Jason said. ‘Father, can’t you unleash the winds to send our ship back?’
Zeus glowered. ‘I could slap you back to Long Island.’